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My First Time: A political novice runs for office

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By Bill Thomas
Sunday, December 5, 2010

Washington is full of associations, so I'm not surprised there's an Association of Former Members of Congress. But I am surprised there's no Association of Former Candidates for Congress -- or, to be more specific, former candidates for Congress who lost in primary elections. If anyone needs consolation and the company of others who've known similar defeat at the hands of voters, it's us. ... Okay, it's me. But I get ahead of myself.

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I ran for Congress in Maryland's 8th District because I thought the government was spending too much money. I had no idea how much I'd be spending, or what I'd have to show for it when the ballots were counted. My rookie stats -- 2,242 votes, 15.25 percent of the total -- are a matter of public record, although the public's not exactly clamoring for a look-see. Which could be the harshest lesson from all of this.

Politics is a rough business that only gets worse after the election and you have to live with the results, including the unhappy fact that winners write history. Losers write résumés.

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In Maryland, a political career may be the only profession open to anyone willing to sign up. There's no special training required, no tests, no proof of insurance. All I had to do was pay $100 to the Board of Elections in Annapolis, and I was on the Sept. 14 primary ballot with three other Republican candidates for Congress.

One minute, I was an average citizen tired of yelling at the news on television. The next, I was a politician being invited to take part in debates and candidate forums, and to fill out endless questionnaires from special interest groups eager to know everything about me, from employment history ("Author, journalist ... former rank-and-file member of the United Auto Workers") and past elective offices ("None") to top legislative priorities ("Encourage job creation and economic growth by cutting regulatory red tape and reducing and simplifying personal and business income taxes"). Writing this stuff takes practice, and just as I was getting the hang of it, my race came to a screeching halt.

A couple of questionnaires in the mail each week soon became a half-dozen or more each day. Suddenly, every advocacy group in the state had my address. Patriots for Maryland wanted to know whether I agreed that "In God We Trust" should stay on U.S. currency. Peace Action for Montgomery asked whether I supported the creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Peace. Seventy-one House members were already on board.

One questionnaire that got my attention was Project Vote Smart's Political Courage Test. The organization, dedicated to improving the political process, says the test is designed to "measure each candidate's willingness to provide citizens with their positions on key issues." It sounded like a useful tool to educate voters. Unfortunately, according to Project Vote Smart, "most candidates, fearing their opponents might use their positions in attack ads," are advised by their consultants not to respond. I didn't have any consultants, so I plunged right in.

There were questions, vetted by a bipartisan panel, on every issue imaginable: jobs, taxes, health care, Social Security, drilling for oil, missile defense, Iran, Afghanistan, terrorism, illegal immigration, unions, same-sex marriage, abortion, guns, Wall Street, socialism and recreational marijuana. And that didn't include the essay section.

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The 8th Congressional District in Maryland (population approximately: 700,000), like every congressional district in the country, is a carefully crafted inkblot. Voters only think they choose elected officials, but it's elected officials who choose them. It happens every 10 years, following the national census, when state legislatures adjust the boundaries of voting districts to conform to population changes. The real goal, though, is to repackage constituents in ways designed to benefit the party in power.

Democrats and Republicans operate from the same playbook. In Maryland, where Democrats have had a longtime majority, party bosses try to create as many friendly districts as possible.


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